Inclusive cities and breastfeeding

To feed or not to feed? That is a question that many mothers ask when assessing their options in public space.

With the best intent, urban designers aim to make public and semi-public spaces – such as malls, streets, plazas and parks – welcoming for every member of the community.

Location, access and design of amenities are thoroughly considered.

But seats are often right next to public throughfares, toilets or rubbish bins – which doesn’t suit every breastfeeding mother.

Even when the availability of seating is good, or seats have backs and arms, some mothers are still concerned about the attention they might receive.

We’ve been talking to new mothers about what it’s like to leave the house with infants and young children.

They know that infants need to feed frequently and if they can’t find somewhere suitable to sit and breastfeed, then loud infant protests are likely to ensue.

We found that some mothers want to breastfeed only in the privacy of their home.

They might avoid leaving home for more than an hour or so, or express milk to offer in a bottle, or use infant formula when outside their home.

Sometimes this leads to decreased milk production, and breastfeeding finishes before they planned.

One mother said “I don’t want to breastfeed when I’m out because I don’t want people looking at me. . . Expressing equipment is expensive. My milk supply reduced so I used formula.”

Other women look for private rooms, such as parent rooms in shopping centres, where they can sit out of sight of the general public. This is convenient for changing nappies and using the bathroom.

But some mothers found it hard to locate: “If there is a baby room to do the breastfeeding, it would be far, far away. It’s not easy to know where it is.”

And not every facility has a suitable room, which can lead to the unsanitary situation of feeding in a toilet cubicle.

“I would find a safe place. One place didn’t have a baby room, so I went to the disabled toilet.”

For some women, breastfeeding in public is no big deal and they are happy to take a seat wherever they can find one. After all, it is their right to feed their child – “Baby’s gotta eat!” they say.

But there is another option. We can create spaces that provide a balance between the need for privacy and the need for social connection, for use by all community members including breastfeeding women.

These semi-private spaces can be nooks, corners, pause places.

Places where mothers can sit comfortably and be part of the community, but with some privacy provided by low walls, chairs with high backs, screens or plants.

In places like public libraries, seating can be partly hidden by bookshelves or columns; even flexible chairs arrangements can allow for interaction or privacy.

Families with young children need space for prams, pushers and tricycles – out of the way, but within sight. Outside spaces need some protection from the wind and sun.

Enclosed family-friendly spaces such as gated playgrounds allow women to breastfeed while their toddler-aged siblings remain safe.

We have worked for many years to improve breastfeeding support within health services.

Although our work in protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding is not over, we need to extend these considerations to the wider community.

Our institutions and local councils need to provide the full range of options: private rooms, semi-private spaces and comfortable seating for mothers who wish to feed in more public areas.

Breastfeeding is rarely considered in the design of public spaces, and by making small and larger changes it is possible to reduce barriers to breastfeeding in public, and help mothers breastfeed more easily and for longer.

The first week in August is World Breastfeeding Week and this year’s theme is “Step Up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support”.

Professor Amir is giving an online presentation titled "Urban Design Solutions to Support Breastfeeding in Public".

Free registration for the live presentation at 7 am AEST on 3 August allows four-week access to the talk.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.

Media contact - Courtney Carthy,, +61 433 208 187